From 16 October onwards, the School of Advanced Study will host a free exhibition of photographs depicting the work of Honduran artist Javier Espinal at Senate House. Dr Cornelia Gräbner, who lectures in Hispanic studies and comparative literature at Lancaster University, went to one of the talks he gave while on a visit to the UK earlier this year.
The little we hear about the Central American country of Honduras usually focuses on brutal, ubiquitous, vaguely inexplicable acts of violence, and about the impunity of the perpetrators. Rarely do we get to engage with those who resist and with those who build alternatives, or with their imaginaries and cosmovisions.
Honduran painter and muralist Javier Espinal created possibilities for such an encounter during a visit to the UK in the first months of 2015. He gave talks at several universities and painted murals with communities in Toxteth, Liverpool and lrlam, Salford.
In a talk at Lancaster, Espinal highlighted the inseparability of culture, art and politics. His individual and community work shows how art can bring to the surface the links between systemic and structural processes, and specific events and expressions. Crucial to his art is an integrative and holistic approach that Espinal learned from the cosmovision of the indigenous Lenca people, the culture of his grandparents.
The Lenca understand human beings as one with their social and natural environments, and with the past, present and future dimensions of existence. Espinal’s visual language integrates their cosmovision with mestizo and urban imaginaries of resistance, and with the experiences of his own journey as an artist.
He lost compañeros, friends and acquaintances to enforced disappearance in the 1980s, when US-sponsored paramilitary groups launched their attacks against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the guerrillas in El Salvador from Honduras and when a terror campaign was unleashed in Honduras itself. In July 2009, Espinal was one of the tens of thousands of people in the streets of Tegucigalpa to defend elected president Manuel Zelaya who was ousted in a coup d’état, and he was present when 18-year-old Isis Obed Murillo was fatally shot.
Shortly after, Espinal lost Pedro Magdiel, who had helped paint a banner that denounced the assassination of Isis Obed. Pedro’s body was found with traces of torture and around 40 stab wounds. Since the – widely criticised – elections of 2010, Honduras has been forced open to what US academic Adrienne Pine has described as ‘neoliberal plunder’; projects that primarily benefit the transnational mining and tourism industry.
Resistance to such projects – see, for example, the cases of environmental activist Bertha Cáceres and that of the radio stations of the Garifuna community – is met with harassment, threats, the assassination of activists and journalists, a resurgence of the terror tactic of enforced disappearance, and the attack on and destruction of spaces and property. At the same time, Honduras has to contend with the violence of gangs and cartels.
The link between process and event, between collective and individual experience, manifests itself in Espinal’s work through the balance between resistance, denunciation, and the building of alternatives.
‘We don’t only denounce’, he explained, ‘we also look for alternative, independent, integral spaces where we can find our identity and create art, awareness, visibility, diversity, political education, action.’
People’s imaginaries are brutalised when they could wake up any day to dead mutilated bodies in the street, when they are constantly subjected to the symbolic violence of slander and disdain, or when they live with the threat of being dispossessed of the spaces that they care about.
Espinal’s muralism project nurtures imaginaries of dignity and non-violence. Asked about the practical aspects of the projects, Espinal explains that first of all he works with the community to agree on motives and colours. Then, the group drafts the mural.
‘We paint with the entire group’, Espinal explained, ‘Only on the last day do I work alone, to give the mural the finishing touches and to make sure that everything is well integrated.’
The images can find a place on almost any surface: ‘We paint on rocks, fences, walls – whatever is there’, he says and shows photographs of a large painted rock in the middle of a square, wooden fences on the ‘Island of the Birds demanding respect for the inhabitants in the face of tourism projects, a long wall of adjacent buildings being painted on by a group of adolescents, and photographs from Italy where a corner wall has been turned into a mural.
In Irlam, the adolescents who participated in the project adorned a park shelter in Princes Park with a blue bomb because that was their term for the shelter – but now the image of a blue bomb shows their ability to turn a violent image into a peaceful one.
The ‘blue bomb’ exists side-by-side with paintings of the trains, viaducts and buildings characteristic of Irlam’s position within past and present, and a tree of different coloured eyes. The eyes symbolise the respectful encounter of different cultures and the learning from each other in a spirit of lucidity and openness.
Art, when it is part of a non-violent imaginary and when everyone approaches it without a sense of superiority over the ‘Other’, can turn into a space of encounter where people – including those from the Global South and the Global North – have much to learn from each other.
Espinal is already planning to create another such space: during his journey he raffled several of his paintings to raise money for an International Encounter of Muralists, to take place in several cities in Honduras in April and May 2016.
Cornelia Gräbner lectures in Hispanic studies and comparative literature. Her interests include the analysis of contemporary committed writing, linked to autonomous grassroots movements; and critical engagement with expressions of poetic imagination that build democratic alternatives to the status quo.
The School of Advanced Study’s ‘Exhibition of mural painting by Honduran artist Javier Espinal’, which begins on 16 October at Senate House, is in room 234 and the second floor lobby.